The work and ideas of Charles Darwin have for years been used by the change management fraternity to motivate the need for change, stressing that the very notion of survival hinged on the species ability to adapt. It was with this in mind that I attended the Gordon Institute of Business Sciences '2019 Big Trends Breakfast', facilitated by Abdullah Verachia. Boasting an impressive range of experience and credentials, I was curious to hear his views on what 2019 held for business, and in turn change facilitators such as myself. What were the challenges that would be top of mind for corporate South Africa? How could we take a more proactive approach in predicting and responding to these changes? Are we prepared and do we have the skills to partner with business in delivering so many of these complex changes and if not, what would our strategy be to close the gaps?
From the outset, it became evident that the topic could warrant far more than the allocated 75 minutes assigned for the session. We could have spent a week in that auditorium and still only have scratched the surface in trying to understand the many macro and micro factors that influence and define economic and business trends. Which makes the case for change professionals needing to find ways of staying current, well informed and abreast of events taking place in the local and global landscape. There were however some immediate and obvious take-homes that challenge the way we partner with, invest in, solve for and execute on change initiatives, all underpinned within the context of the 4th Industrial Revolution.
1. Country Competitiveness:
Front of mind for so many South Africans is the current political and economic state of the country. There is a very real concern for a positive and hopeful transformation to our current state of affairs. It has become almost impossible to hear any positive news be it via social media or conventional outlets such as radio and print media. Verachia spoke about 'bad politics' making for 'bad economics' and vice versa and the shadow of corruption and failing SOEs in a globally market-sensitive economic climate has certainly left many people feeling lost and hopeless. It would be a fascinating exercise plotting South Africans against the Kubler-Ross change curve in our current state. And yet it is within this global and local context that change management practitioners are having to deliver successful and often difficult change. This really challenges us to look at the way we solve for when driving change. Are we considering the impact and influence of the broader macro-context within which the change is taking place? How is this impacting our stakeholders? Have we prepared ourselves for difficult conversations and factored these in when developing resistance strategies? We need to increase our time spent with leaders and really explore creative change management strategies for supporting them with driving change. Now more than ever we need to ensure that we are linking all initiatives with the strategic goals and objectives. And this must ultimately speak back to critical success factors such as innovation, competitiveness, client centricity, performance, good governance... and hope.
One of my biggest take-homes was also how much we still have to offer as a country. Despite what has happened over the last 10 years, we are still ranked 28th in the world according to the World Press Freedom Index. We have the 6th largest rail and 10th largest road network in the world. Our airports are ranked 22nd out of 140 countries with OR Tambo being the busiest airport in Africa. We also account for 49% of the private sector economy in Africa. There were many other stats and figures shared during the session, some positive and some negative. That said, we really do have so much to be proud of as a country and there is a lot of positive work being done by organisations and individuals alike. And as change management professionals, we are challenged to become more conscious around the language we use and the way we engage around South Africa. Because, when your change practitioner is talking openly about their emigration plans, what sort of message is this sending around the perceived sustainability of the work being done? I am not saying we are not allowed to have the concerns we have or feel anxiety around the events that are taking place, but we must always remember our role in inspiring positivity and hope with our stakeholders. We are reminded by Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, to yes, be open and face the brutal facts of our context while still driving a message of optimism and hope.
2. Company Competitiveness:
Break-neck technology innovation and enhancements and increasing global competition are challenging the very fibre of the way companies think and function. Now more than ever, organisations really need to innovate with their end-user / customer in mind and the days of waiting to deliver a perfect solution are gone. Many of the larger organisations are trying, often unsuccessfully, to deal with legacy systems and disparate infrastructure that is not client-centric and incredibly difficult and expensive to replace or fix. Start-ups and competitors are taking advantage of the situation by being able to build agile solutions with the client at the heart of the development process. This has very real implications for the change management discipline as we too are being challenged to change the way we deliver. Majority of our existing change management methodologies have been built around process driven, waterfall type approaches with the bulk of practitioners still trying to understand and plot their role in these new environments. The change practitioner is being challenged to change. Do we know what Agile is? How does Agile influence the way we deliver change? How are we solving for Agile implementations? Have we created or refined our approaches to cater for Agile? Are we actively and openly championing Agile or similar methodologies? We must take the lead and redefine how to create value and deliver successful change.
The second aspect I found interesting (although not new) was the incremental and incessant change being driven throughout organisations world-wide as a result of the 4th industrial revolution. Digitisation strategies and initiatives are already resulting in job-cuts and this in turn will make the role of driving such technology initiatives that much harder due to employee suspicion and fear. Change strategies and messaging need to be carefully crafted, and where possible, fears allayed in the event that there may be structural or role changes resulting from digitisation initiatives. In unionised environments, the magnitude of the task may be ten-fold when navigating the job-enlargement vs. job reduction debate. The message must be crystal clear. From a change fatigue perspective and with employee 'airtime' becoming a scarce commodity (needing to be shared by competing project and change teams), change management software that helps provide an organisational view of all change on all impacted audiences starts to become a 'must' versus a 'nice to have'. By having access to this type of data, practitioners with the support and guidance from business stakeholders and sponsors, can explore and agree on creative ways of packaging change in larger, easier to digest chunks that minimise end-user impact, engagement and training.
3. Individual Competitiveness:
Now more than ever, the role of the individual remains key, industrial revolution or not. Starting with the transformational leaders at the helm of the organisations tasked with delivering results. Verachia spoke about iterative (doing the same things better), innovative (doing new things) and disruptive (doing new things that will make the old one's obsolete) strategies that would influence the direction and approach such a leader may take. Many of the trends that we are seeing today speak to more disruptive strategies which in turn will result in changes to business models, having a profound impact on the employment landscape over the coming years. According to McLeod, Scott and Karl Fisch (Shift Happens), 65% of children today will end up in careers that don't even exist yet. Which makes planning for an uncertain tomorrow that much more challenging. However, not everything can be digitised and anything that can't be (such as human traits like empathy), according to Verachia and the likes of Steve Jobs, will become that much more valuable. The importance of fields and work dealing with people sciences (such as change management) should therefore not be underestimated. The future is one filled with change which makes the work of the change practitioner that much more critical. If anything, the type of person who elects to go into the field must hold the individual and our society at the core of everything they do. There is a need for practitioners to focus on personal development and continuous improvement that is people centred, while developing areas such as resilience and stress management. The industry in turn needs to start building or expanding on existing support structures for practitioners in the field. Similar to the Psychology Counselling Supervisory model, practitioners need to have access to mentors/coaches who can help them debrief, reflect and adapt. Lastly, linking in with our role as responsible corporate citizens and as a means of addressing high levels of unemployment and a skills deficit in the change management field, we are challenged with finding new ways to grow and develop graduates. The role and importance of graduate development programmes needs to extend past traditional corporate programmes. This is difficult for smaller consultancies and companies based on the required financial and resource intensive investment that such programmes require. What alternative models could smaller organisations use to develop change management graduates? Do such models exist? And if not, then there may very well be a new business opportunity that is indeed ripe for the picking.
The GIBS 2019 Big Trends Breakfast really did serve up its promised food for thought... as we are challenged to keep up with change in an ever-changing world. Like the 'mechanics car' analogy, we need to remain vigilant and conscious of our role not only in facilitating change for our clients but also in recognising the change requirements and opportunities within ourselves. Futurists like Abdullah Verachia help us with identifying how our world will continue to change going forward, however it is up to the change management industry to think forward and identify how we will need to adapt to remain relevant while continuing to add value.